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Putting Equity into Practice at REL Northeast & Islands

Northeast & Islands | November 17, 2022

A young child raising her hand

Given the importance of addressing education disparities, which have been only further exacerbated by disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our REL efforts over the next five years will intentionally focus on promoting education equity. But what does this look like in practice?

A simple internet search for the phrase "education equity" yields almost a billion results! Countless articles define education equity (including discussing the important difference between equity and equality), while others stress the importance of pursuing equity in learning opportunities and outcomes for students. Many resources, such as our REL Northeast & Islands data coaching guide, describe strategies for promoting education equity.  Other resources compile information, like the Comprehensive Center Network's landscape scan focused on racial equity in education. Relevant federal equity assistance center resources are also widely available, including this series of essays, articles, and research focused on education equity for students and families living in rural communities.

Strategies for Addressing Equity

At REL Northeast & Islands we rely upon and contribute to such resources in our collective efforts to improve outcomes for all learners—particularly for those who have been systematically underserved—including Black and Hispanic students, students with disabilities, children experiencing poverty, and children who are multilingual learners. Our focus on equity is multifaceted and includes strategies such as:

  1. Engaging in equitable research and evaluation practices, including:
    • Designing studies that reflect the historical, cultural, and political context of the place and people involved
    • Collaborating closely with partners to articulate research questions and identify a data strategy that reflects the community context and acknowledges the burden of data gathering on partner organizations
    • Identifying and investigating root causes of gaps in student opportunities and outcomes
    • Disaggregating data for specific groups that provide partners with information to identify and understand what programs or practices work for whom and under which conditions
  2. Creating logic models that clearly identify the priority student populations and intended learner outcomes
  3. Communicating using inclusive and representative language in all activities, products, and materials
  4. Designing and delivering equity-centered training, coaching, and technical support projects that focus on students' assets, such as:
    • Guiding partners through a structured process to deeply explore systemic problems, identify where inequities exist, and investigate their root causes
    • Building the capacity of education leaders to engage diverse audiences in education efforts and design creative solutions to address systemic problems and enhance learning outcomes

Here are two examples of how REL Northeast & Islands is partnering with education leaders across our region to put equity at the center of our project work:

Using an Asset-based Perspective with Multilingual Learners in Connecticut

In Connecticut, we have formed a partnership focused on research-based instructional approaches, with the long-term goal of increasing multilingual learners (MLLs') mathematics achievement. The Connecticut Multilingual Learners Mathematics Partnership is collaborating with the Connecticut State Department of Education, Hartford Public Schools, and other state associations to build the capacity of education leaders and middle grade teachers to strengthen mathematics teaching and learning for MLLs.

All the activities of this partnership use an asset-based perspective, consistent with the strategies for addressing equity above. Incorporating an asset-based perspective about MLLs into the partnership's research and training activities highlights their multi-competence as they develop fluency in multiple languages while also engaging in mathematical thinking and communication alongside their monolingual peers. This includes using the term multilingual learner, which highlights students' linguistic strengths, and focusing on all resources that students draw on in mathematics class, such as prior mathematical knowledge and understanding and the use of visual representations for problem solving and communication. Practically, using an asset-based approach means offering MLLs opportunities to demonstrate their reasoning and communicate with others. It means recognizing that low performance on mathematics achievement tests may reflect language-based barriers that prevent MLLs from demonstrating their knowledge or accessing classroom mathematics learning opportunities rather than an inability of MLLs to engage in challenging mathematics.

One of the partnership's current projects is a workshop series that fosters this asset-based perspective. REL Northeast & Islands is guiding district leaders through a structured process to explore systemic problems related to MLL achievement, identify where inequities exist, and investigate their root causes. District leaders will also learn about research-based mathematics strategies for MLLs and create logic models and action plans to improve mathematics learning for middle grade MLLs. One example of using an asset-based perspective is a framing exercise for analyzing student work that involves focusing on evidence of what the student understands and how they got started on a solution path. This helps to counter a natural tendency to notice or attend to what students did incorrectly or what they do not fully understand. Since MLLs are not yet fluent in explaining their thinking, it is important to focus on the building blocks for understanding that are represented in students' work.

Creating Remote Learning Innovations in Maine

Our activities as part of the Maine Partnership to Support Innovative and Equitable Educational Opportunities provide another example of equity in practice. This partnership aims to understand implementation and outcomes related to original and innovative approaches to persisting problems of practice to ensure that all students have access to rich and rigorous learning opportunities.  The partnership has a particular focus on students living in rural communities, students with individualized education plans, and students experiencing poverty—all of whom were disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and by insufficient investment in remote learning.  REL Northeast & Islands and partnership members from the Maine Department of Education, several school districts, including the Maine Indian Education district, and other organizations identified these student groups as the focus of the partnership during the creation of a logic model that articulates the partnership's activities and intended learner outcomes.

In response to the challenges of and the inequities exacerbated by the pandemic, Maine is implementing responsive, remote learning innovations such as outdoor education, multiple and flexible pathways, extended learning opportunities, and online learning.  In this partnership, REL Northeast & Islands is delivering equity-centered technical assistance to teachers, coaches, and state leaders to use data to better understand how these innovative practices are implemented and make improvements. The project uses a structured data inquiry process to explore implementation and outcome data, identify if patterns—including any inequities—exist, and if so, support educators in using data to improve their practices and meet their intended learner outcomes. The project will provide information that partners can use to support the replication of innovative practices, ultimately providing students with more equitable access to high-quality remote and responsive learning options.  

These are just a few examples of the ways in which REL Northeast & Islands partnerships are prioritizing and practicing equity in their activities to improve learner outcomes, particularly for children who have been systematically underserved. To learn more about our partnership activities, visit the REL Northeast & Islands website.


Jessica Bailey

Jessica Bailey

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